…things start to come together for Monferrato in a way that does, empirically, make the area a unique gem of a wine region; not just within Italy, but within all the world.
At first, this seems like it would be as easy as shooting fish in a barrel when it comes to a wine lover expounding on the specialness of one of the most unique wine regions in Italy (which, in a country that has the most indigenous wine grape varieties, also puts it in the running for one of the most diverse wine regions on the planet). I mean, there’s fine wine produced in Monferrato at pretty much every price point, style, and quality level imaginable.
But then one realizes that one of the primary things that Italian wine regions have in common are that they each possess special traits that make them unique. It’s kind of like a parent trying to describe what makes their child – the center of their lives, the person about whom the care more than anyone – unique. The reality is that they are all special, which ironically undermines the impact that their specialness is supposed to have on us.
Uh oh… All of a sudden, this job isn’t so easy…
Fortunately for me, other people have already done the work. But before we get into that, we should talk about some of those things that make Monferrato so special (if not quite so unique).
Wine has been a central aspect of life in Monferrato since ancient times. Evidence of vine pollen has been found here dating back to the 5th Century BC, when Piedmont was an important spot along the trade route between the Celts and the Etruscans (interestingly, wine-related terms from both languages are still used in the area). The quality of the wine made in the region eventually caught the attention of Pliny the Elder, who mentioned Piedmont as one of the best areas for growing vines in all of ancient Italy. While mentions from Pliny the Elder are always impressive, having an ancient wine tradition in Italy doesn’t really make Monferrato unique.
Technically, we can go back even farther, and talk about where the vines are planted; on the white, fossil-rich, marly calcareous soils in Asti, for example, that date from the Tertian age (about 2 million years ago). Or Asti Monferrato’s sandy,
Pliocene-era soils along the slopes of the Tanaro river. But having ancient, nutrient-poor, well-drained soils – exactly the stuff you want to plant wine grapevines in – usually doesn’t make a fine wine region unique.
For centuries, Monferrato has been recognized as a special place with abundant natural beauty and resources. Again, this doesn’t make it particularly special in the world wine business, particularly for Italy. Since the 900s AD, people have been wanting to come here, mostly to try to invade it and claim its resources and beauty for themselves. That steady stream of “admirers” was the impetus behind the construction of Monferrato’s incredible array of castles, which somehow manage to combine austerity, ornate beauty, and imposing fear. They’re the kind of construction that probably made invading hoards think twice (or thrice) about charging them.
Ironically, what was once Monferrato’s biggest deterrent is now one of its main tourist draws. But as anyone who’s ever been to Europe, or even just conducted an Internet search about possibly going to Europe, can tell you, beautiful castles are about the last thing that makes a wine region unique in the Old World. For examples of this, see… well, just about any wine region in Western Europe!
Interestingly, Monferrato is also just as famous for what lies beneath those castles. The Canelli Castle, which dates back to the 11th Century, was built primarily to protect the roads to the nearby port cities of Savona and Vado Ligure, and was razed in the early 1600s (and rebuilt and renovated in 1930, and is now owned by the Gancia family). Below it is what is often referred to as a wine cathedral; and example of the region’s infernots. These subterranean temples of wine were carved out of the calcareous tuff by hand starting in the 16th century. The arches and tunnels of these caves, which measure thirty meters (nearly 100 feet) in depth, housed wine racks, storage nooks and crannies that offered an ideal fine wine storage temperature of about 13C (56F). They expanded organically, without plan, as storage needs arose. Today, under Canelli, they are covered in brick, and make up a labyrinth that’s nearly 18 kilometers (11 miles) long. Personally, I love this description:
“Niches, recesses, shelves, the chiaroscuro lighting, all designed for a single protagonist and her handmaidens: wine and the bottles that lie there in waiting.”
That’s a beautiful, poetic image. But do gorgeous underground caves make a wine region unique? Sorry, but the answer is definitely a Heck, No. Hello… ever heard of Champagne? The city of Reims is sitting atop 250 kilometers of mostly ancient wine caves, with about 200 million bottles stored in them.
But, if you take all of the above, however – winery landscape, and its intersection with history both above and below ground level – then things start to come together for Monferrato in a way that does, empirically, make the area a unique gem of a wine region; not just within Italy, but within all the world. Thankfully, you don’t need to take my word for that; it’s what UNESCO determined when Monferrato (along with Langhe-Roero) became Italy’s fiftieth UNESCO World Heritage Site, a designation that included the hills of Barolo and Barbaresco, Nizza Monferrato (for Barbera production), and Canelli (for Asti Spumante)..
See, I told you my job wasn’t actually as hard as it looks.
With this designation, Italy now has more UNESCO sites – fifty – than any other country, so we could argue that this status isn’t really unique, but, come on, it’s UNESCO’s job to designate places as unique; Italy can’t help it if it’s blessed with so many of them. Having said that, Monferrato is unique even within the terms defined by UNESCO. It might be part of Italy’s fiftieth World Heritage Site, but it’s the first in the country awarded specifically for a wine landscape. If that doesn’t make it empirically unique, then I give up!
Now, UNESCO reports don’t exactly make for outstanding, compelling reading; they’re more like courtroom documentation, senate hearings, scientific journals, or medical textbooks levels of dryness. But here’s what UNESCO had to say about the landscape, which includes Nizza Monferrato and Barbera, as well as Canelli and Asti Spumante:
“It constitutes an outstanding and emblematic cultural landscape of particularly harmonious hillside vineyards. It presents numerous subtle aesthetic and cultural nuances. It bears testimony to a deep and long-established relationship between man and his natural environment. The property illustrates the long and patient process of establishing winegrowing and winemaking traditions which have enabled particularly successful adaptations between a variety of soil types and native grape varieties to produce wines that bear witness to outstanding and world-renowned expertise… The property quintessentially expresses winegrowing culture down the ages within the context of European civilisation.”
That, my friends, is downright poetic by UNESCO writing standards. Almost a match for the unique, natural poetry of the Monferrato landscape itself.